"Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts," sings the chorus during the first act's finale in Robert Wilson's new production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera with the Berliner Ensemble at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, as part of the Next Wave Festival (through Saturday). This is a fact borne out at every turn in the text, music, and Wilson's silent cinema grotesque character and costume design, all thrown into sharp, sensuous relief by exquisitely minimalist stage and lighting design. That contrast plays out most powerfully in the disjuncture between this spectacular production's slick visuals and guttural, grating sounds.
The songs here, rather than being belted in the Broadway musical style, are delivered in a raspy, sung-spoken banter evocative of Weimar-era cabarets. Befitting the opera's stated goal of being performed for the poor, by the poor—it was based on John Gay's The Beggar's Opera—the lyrics (sung in German with English supertitles) treat not only of police corruption and panhandling, but sex, prostitution, piss and shit. Delivered on so elegant a stage, before so not-poor an audience, Brecht's lyrics take on an added note of winking, nose-thumbing glee underlined by the ensemble's macabre clown-like makeup.
The action of the story—in which London criminal Macheath (Stefan Kurt) marries Polly Peachum (the excellent Stefanie Stappenbeck) much to the dismay of her father (Jürgen Holtz), leader of a gang of beggars, who eventually turns Macheath over the crook's old friend, police chief Brown (Axel Werner)—progresses at a grinding pace. If the gist of Brecht's theory of theatre is to prevent the audience from ever forgetting that it's sitting in front of a troupe of actors on a stage rather than a hermetically sealed narrative environment, Wilson and this production's music directors Hans-Jörn Brandenburg and Stefan Rager do right by Bertolt. The songs are strung together like pungent yet delicate threadbare rags, full of gaps, silences, screeching sound effects, garish screams and pantomimed gestures. Characters' movements and expressions remind of silent cinema—an influence acknowledged in a late homage to Charlie Chaplin—Tim Burton movies and the robot dance.
But for all the production's disparate, almost competing allusions—Frank Sinatra and Lady Gaga are briefly invoked, while the set design suggests 80s sci-fi movies and Dan Flavin fluorescents—it's their hard-won synergy that makes this production so essential. And even though a couple of the two-hours-long first act's numbers don't quite come together, there's enough here to sate even the most voracious spectator. The last three scenes are especially stunning: a pitched (and high-pitched) battle between Macheath's two wives, the crook's final jail cell pleas, and the aptly anti-bank hanging-turned-happy ending finale. If you can get tickets—there were at least three scalpers peddling them on Lafayette Avenue when I attended on Wednesday night—this Threepenny will leave you poor, but much richer too.
(Photo: Stephanie Berger)